THE municipal Social Affairs Department has reported a slight increase in the number of sex workers who were rounded up and detained in Phnom Penh in 2009.
Nut Nang, the department’s deputy director of social health, said that 469 sex workers were detained in Phnom Penh in 2009, up from 415 in 2008.
Although the department blamed the economic crisis for the rise in detentions, NGO officials who work with sex workers said the government had failed in providing alternative income sources for the women it had rounded up.
“The number of sex workers is increasing because of the global economic crisis,” Nut Nang said.
“We saw that many factories were closed and factory workers lost their jobs, and most of them didn’t go back to their hometown but instead turned to work in night clubs, karaoke parlours and other public places in order to earn money for their families.”
She decried the tendency of detained sex workers to head right back onto the street when they are released.
“They never care about their own future. When I explain to them that they should not continue doing sex work and encourage them to learn a specific skill, what I hear from them is: ‘I cannot let my family members die because they have no food – I must go to do the same job,’” Nut Nang said.
But NGO workers said the department should be doing more to prepare detained sex workers for other professions.
“Of course they are going back,” said Sara Bradford, a technical adviser for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers.
“The Ministry of Social Affairs detention centres offer nothing in terms of vocational training, so how would they provide sex workers with marketable skills upon their release?” she said.
Keo Tha, a coordinator for the Women’s Network for Unity, said any increase in sex worker detentions was cause for concern.
“I am worried about the number of sightings of police detaining sex workers, because it can impact those who need to use antiretroviral medication,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOYLE